In the days, weeks and months to come, Nova Scotia’s provincial courts have a weighty decision to make. At issue: What to make of Halifax’s peninsula-wide encampment evictions on Aug. 18, 2021 that sparked violent police clashes with protestors, ended in mass arrests and brought tempers in a city facing a severe housing crisis to a boil. On Thursday, May 25, that dilemma resurfaced in the Spring Garden Road courthouse—one sprinkled with supporters of the 24 demonstrators Halifax Regional Police arrested that August day. Provincial court judge Kelly Serbu heard the opening testimonies in the second of four criminal trials stemming from those arrests.
Brady Patterson, 30, of Halifax, faces charges of mischief, resisting arrest and three counts of assaulting a peace officer.
As the HRM grapples with a growing population of unhoused and precariously housed Haligonians, it’s a case that many are watching with interest—not just for its outcome, but for what it might reveal about the region’s underlying and overlapping crises.
Unrest on Aug. 18, 2021
On the day police arrested Patterson, a stone’s throw from the courthouse she appeared in on Thursday, HRP officers were tasked with assisting HRM staff in tearing down tents and Tyvek shelters in several parks across the city. Those tear-downs spanned from Horseshoe Park near the Armdale Rotary, to the recently-renamed Peace and Friendship Park on Barrington Street, to the Halifax Common beside the Emera Oval. Some unhoused Haligonians in other locations, scared of their own temporary shelters being forcibly removed, preemptively took them down. At the time, according to the Affordable Housing Association of Nova Scotia, roughly 400 Haligonians were unhoused. As of May 23, 2023, that figure has more than doubled to 942.
The shelter tear-downs prompted online calls for action. By noon on Aug. 18, 2021, over 100 people had gathered at the old Halifax Memorial Library on Spring Garden Road, where the last remaining shelter stood. The crowd doubled within hours. They passed water around, joined arms to chant for access to housing and checked in on each other.
Nearby, at least 50 police officers from across the municipality formed a moving wedge and advanced toward protesters. Tensions escalated as city crews worked to remove the last remaining Tyvek shelter from the park. Protestors hurled slurs and insults at police. Officers pepper-sprayed the crowd of demonstrators—including a child. Journalists on scene were cordoned to a designated platform; those who stepped off were threatened with arrest.
In a police statement issued the day of the evictions, the HRP said its actions were taken “in the interest of public safety and safety of the occupants of these dwellings.” Patterson’s lawyer, Asaf Rashid, argues the HRP’s actions had the opposite effect. Speaking by phone with The Coast, he claims the treatment his client received at the hands of police raises “quite a lot” of Charter-related issues, including the rights of a person to be informed of the charges against them and not be subjected to excessive force by police. He points to the Board of Police Commissioners launching an independent review into the HRP’s handling of the August evictions as calling into question the merit of any police arrests stemming from the shelter clearances and resulting protests.
“What it says to me is, ‘Hold on a second,’ you know, people were actually charged criminally arising out of police conduct that day, and meanwhile, the whole police conduct itself is being questioned,” Rashid tells The Coast. “It doesn’t really make sense to me that, in the grand scheme of things, these prosecutions should really be going ahead when the whole operation of what the police did that day is being looked at.”
Police testify Patterson head-butted, attempted to bite officers
Judge Serbu heard from five Crown witnesses Thursday—all members of the HRP. (More witnesses will appear before the court on Friday.) Staff sergeant Monier Chediac, who led the HRP’s public safety unit on Aug. 18, 2021, told the court that he attempted to restrain Patterson—who uses she/they pronouns—after she “stomped” on the hood of a white contracting truck parked near the corner of Spring Garden Road and Brunswick Street and kicked at its antenna.
At the time, Chediac told the court, as many as 40 police officers were on scene as regional crews dismantled and removed a Tyvek structure used to shelter unhoused Haligonians. (The Coast counted at least 50 officers present during the events on Spring Garden Road.) Crowds of protestors and advocates for the rights of unhoused Haligonians had gathered to voice their opposition. Chediac testified that he and his colleagues, many of whom were dressed in riot gear—and some who were seen with name tags missing—were there “to preserve the public peace.”
The courtroom watched a roughly two-minute video compilation of Patterson’s arrest. In it, she’s seen addressing officers and regional staff from the hood of the contracting truck.
“Is that what you wanted to do? You just wanted to come and take houses away from people?” she can be heard shouting. “They have nothing. You’ve given them nothing.”
Chediac testified that he moved to arrest Patterson out of fears that she was inciting the crowd against police and the HRM crews dismantling the Tyvek shelter.
“At the time it was property damage,” he told judge Serbu, “but it was really inciting and energizing the crowd… my fear was that, had I let it go any longer… it posed a significant threat to safety against the crowd and/or the police trying to hold the line.”
During cross-examination, Rashid countered that Patterson wasn’t directing the crowd against the police at any point, but instead was speaking out about the plight of Halifax’s unhoused community.
“We just heard what was on the video,” he said to Chediac. “She’s not actually telling the crowd to do anything to police. Would you agree that she’s not telling the crowd to do anything to police?”
Chediac replied that it was “difficult to answer.” While Patterson wasn’t offering explicit instructions, he said, she was “polarizing the energy” of the crowd:
“Even though it wasn’t directly messaging the crowd, those actions, it caused the crowd to ramp up in the way that it did.”
The bulk of witness testimony on Thursday centred on what happened after Patterson jumped off the truck. Chediac testified that, as he tried to restrain Patterson, she “headbutted” him in the face, splitting his lip. He further claimed the blow disoriented him for “eight to 10 seconds.” Another officer, sergeant Justin Sheppard, testified that, while he and his colleagues were engaged in an “all-out struggle” to restrain Patterson on the ground, she was “grabbing at the legs” of Chediac. He claims she tried to bite his arms and legs.
“I kept moving my arms, yelling, ‘Stop,’” Sheppard told the courtroom. “Ms. Patterson was not compliant at any time,” he added later.
Rashid countered that Chediac’s knee was on Patterson’s neck while officers restrained her on the ground—a claim Chediac disagreed with. He further countered that, because of the noise of the crowd, his client couldn’t hear any officers telling her that she was under arrest.
Police shelter siege prompts public backlash, strong reaction from council
Rashid is not the only one critical of the HRP’s conduct on Aug. 18, 2021. Halifax’s encampment clearings proved to be a political lightning rod, prompting criticism from affordable housing advocates and calls for action from some corners of HRM council.
“I don’t want to be the mayor of a city where people don’t have the ability to spend the night in at least somewhat comfortable conditions and give themselves a chance to achieve their potential,” said mayor Mike Savage after putting forward a motion for crisis housing shelters on Aug. 31, 2021.
Savage’s motion directed the city’s then-chief administrative officer, Jacques Dube, to approve spending up to $500,000 on emergency housing, and to work with the department of community services to figure out how best to spend that money. That prompted the HRM, within a month, to announce it was buying 73 modular housing units to use as emergency shelters. (It hasn’t gone well.)
At that same Aug. 31 council meeting, councillor Becky Kent apologized for the city’s actions, calling the events “violent and disturbing.”
“I want to say how sorry I am that those unintended consequences, of what we thought was a good plan, unfolded,” Kent said. “I never want to see something like that happen again in this city.”
Other councillors’ concerns centred around the backlash they’d received in the wake of the HRM’s shelter evictions, deeming it to have crossed a line.
“I am concerned about the level of public discourse, the hate in particular that I have received,” said Hammonds Plains councillor Pam Lovelace. “Calling for my head, calling for my resignation, threatening to take myself and my children out of our beds at night.”
Police watchdog calls for independent review
Calls for an inquiry into the HRP’s conduct on Aug. 18, 2021 have persisted for nearly two years. In September 2021, the East Coast Prison Justice Society launched an online petition calling for a “full and independent investigation” into the actions of HRP officers on the day of the shelter evictions. The petition claims the HRP’s actions on Aug. 18, 2021 “reflect longstanding and systemic issues with policing in HRM, including the Municipality’s reliance on police to address complex social needs; excessive force by police; and the militarization of the police.” It garnered more than 4,500 signatures.
Despite the public support for an inquiry into the Aug. 18 shelter evictions, none have followed—until now. On May 3, 2023, Halifax’s Board of Police Commissioners—regional councillors Kent, Lindell Smith and Lisa Blackburn, along with Gavin Giles, Anthony Thomas, Yemi Akindoju and Harry Critchley—announced that the board has hired Toronto law firm Cooper, Sandler, Shime & Schwartzentruber LLP to conduct an “independent civilian review” of the police board’s oversight and policy responsibilities stemming from the HRP’s response to the protests two summers ago.
“Concerns have been expressed,” the police watchdog’s statement reads, “about the role and involvement of Halifax Regional Police in the eviction of unhoused and/or underhoused individuals and in its handling of the related protests.”
Criminal defense lawyer Mark Sandler—who served as lead counsel on the 2018 review of Toronto Police Services’ handling of missing persons cases, most notably in Toronto’s 2SLGBTQ+ community—will oversee the proceedings. The review is scheduled to begin June 1, 2023 and will cost the region $250,000.
The Coast reached out to councillor Kent, chair of the Board of Police Commissioners, for comment on what the board hopes a review will achieve, but could not arrange an interview before publication. Speaking with reporters after the board’s May 3 meeting, however, Kent said it’s the commission’s hope that an independent review would “repair trust” in the HRP and its governance.
“There’s clearly trust to be repaired," Kent said. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen overnight, but at the end of the day, it’s doing the right thing, and if the public see that as something they want, then they’ll decide whether or not they trust.”
Housing advocates call for city’s apology
For some Haligonians, the Aug. 18 shelter evictions—and subsequent court trials—have evoked long-held concerns about a growing gap between Halifax’s haves and have-nots, and a region-wide failure to provide solutions for Halifax’s unhoused population.
Eileen Roth, who has attended the trials and tells The Coast she’s part of a “group of concerned citizens,” says she’d like to see charges against the protestors dropped “at the bare minimum,” and a public apology from the HRM and HRP for their joint handling of the events of Aug. 18, 2021.
“We have people who are rightfully enraged about the circumstances of our lives that are being targeted, and there’s no way out except to say, ‘We need to live, we need to support each other in a community context,’” she says, speaking outside the courthouse with The Coast. “And if, you know, we’re arrested for that—and violently arrested for that—then that’s being told our lives aren’t as important as the protection of property and capital.”
Patterson’s trial will resume Friday morning. The last two protestors facing criminal charges will appear in court on Aug. 15-16 and Sep. 15, respectively. The provincial court’s decision on an earlier trial is expected by Aug. 18—two years to the day after the shelter evictions.
—With files from Victoria Walton, Lyndsay Armstrong and Isabel Buckmaster.